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Business trends

A quarter of Japan's international flights now link to China

With trips up 19% this season, Chinese carriers fatten cash cow routes

China Southern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines have both bolstered service to and from Japan.   © Reuters

TOKYO/GUANGZHOU -- China has become the top location for inbound and outbound Japan flights this winter, topping South Korea, thanks to booming tourism and aggressive overseas expansion by Chinese airlines.

A total of 1,406 regular passenger flights a week are scheduled between Japan and China for the winter travel season, which began Oct. 27 and ends March 28, according to the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. This is up by 224 flights, or 19%, from the summer. Routes to and from China now make up 27% of all international flights in Japan.

Keisei Electric Railway, which operates the Skyliner rail link from central Tokyo to Narita Airport, began accepting payment via a Chinese e-payment platform at ticket counters in September. About 7.4 million Chinese visitors came to Japan between January and September, up 15% from a year prior.

Gateways with spare capacity like Narita are generally open to adding new flights. Chinese carriers actively took advantage of this, setting up 238 new flights weekly this winter for a total of 1,134. In addition to an expansion by state-owned China Southern Airlines, midtier player Xiamen Airlines launched a new route between Fuzhou and Narita.

Meanwhile, flights to and from South Korea have plunged by 501 a week to 778 amid bilateral tensions. Air Seoul, a budget carrier under Asiana Airlines, has significantly cut back service to Japan.

Chinese airlines are tapping their ample revenue from domestic routes to fund their expansion abroad. The top three players alone served 230 million passengers domestically in 2018 -- 3.5 times as many as Japan's big two. The Chinese government has loosely assigned airlines to different aviation hubs to mitigate competition, and midtier players have monopolies on certain regional routes.

Chinese airlines are also building up their reputation for customer service. Hainan Airlines and China Southern ranked seventh and 14th globally on service quality, according to British research company Skytrax.

Japanese carriers are also struggling to keep up with Chinese players. Japan Airlines' passenger-kilometers for Chinese routes fell 2.3% on the year in the July-September period. "Chinese airlines have launched new routes to Japan from Hangzhou and Wuxi, and there is a mismatch between supply and demand," said Hideki Kikuyama, a senior managing executive officer at JAL.

All Nippon Airways is scaling back service to China through such means as downsizing planes on Chinese routes. The ANA Holdings unit's passengers to and from China fell 7% on the year in the April-September half, and the company expects tough competition for the October-December quarter as well.

Chinese routes account for 14% of ANA's international service and 11% of JAL's, making them one of their biggest growth drivers after U.S. and European routes.

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